Freedom from Religion? Public Opposition to Mosques

Is there any way around the pattern in which individuals become less supportive of democratic values and rights in times of threat?
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By Kerstin Fisk, Jennifer L. Merolla, and Elizabeth J. Zechmeister

Fierce debate has erupted in recent weeks over the proposed construction of the Cordoba House, a mosque and Islamic cultural center that, if built, will sit a few blocks from Ground Zero. The issue, which only a short time ago was considered a local one, has spiraled onto the national stage. An August poll by CNN, for example, shows that the vast majority of Americans, 68 percent, are decidedly against construction of the Cordoba facility.

A question many are asking is why so much controversy surrounds the Cordoba Initiative, a matter UCLA constitutional law professor Eugene Volokh deemed an "open and shut" case since the facility will be built by a private organization, on its own property. But an arguably more important issue underlying that debate concerns the general rights of Muslims to practice their religion in America. Perhaps, then, a more critical question is this: why are citizens and politicians in a country founded by individuals who sought religious freedom and enshrined it in their constitution overlooking this value by condemning the Muslim center in Manhattan in a manner that is increasingly demagogic and vitriolic?

Some claim that their stance against the building of the mosque and cultural center has nothing to do with religious freedom. Instead, they argue that the project shows insensitivity to what happened on 9/11 as well as a lack of empathy for families of the victims of those devastating attacks. Jim Renacci, a Republican congressional candidate from Ohio, remarked that "Just because we may have the right to do something, doesn't necessarily make it right to do it." Some comments have been far more disparaging. For instance, Newt Gingrich has stated that putting a "mosque" near Ground Zero "...would be like putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum."

While this sentiment may arguably make sense in the context of the proposed project, what is less clear is why we observe similar opposition to the building of mosques across the U.S. In June, opponents of the construction of a Muslim center in Temecula, California picketed outside of the local mosque, protesting plans for a new worship center on land owned by the mosque. Following the lead of Tennessee's Republican candidates for governor and congress, hundreds of protesters gathered in the city of Murfreesboro recently to voice their opposition to the purchase of land for construction of a Muslim center near a subdivision. A similar battle is taking place in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Have some members of the U.S. public and government forgotten about democratic values and rights?

Political scientists are likely not very surprised by the recent opposition and polls. Research has long demonstrated that the U.S. public does not practice what it preaches when it comes to democratic values. That is, support for democratic values in the abstract is always quite high. However, support tends to wane when people are asked about support for democratic rights and values in practice. The right to freedom of religion is an abstract democratic right, while the right to build mosques and cultural centers is that value put into practice.

We also know that support for democratic rights and values in practice wanes even further in times of threat. During the McCarthy era, a researcher named Samuel Stouffer found that majorities of citizens did not think that an admitted Communist should be allowed to speak publicly, teach in schools, or work as a clerk in a store, and this was more pronounced among those who saw Communism as an internal danger to the security of the country. These days, and as demonstrated in our book, Democracy at Risk, individuals worried about terrorism exhibit less trust, express more intolerance, support more punitive policies toward others, and prefer stricter laws, even if they curtail civil liberties. Interestingly, Muslims are not the only outgroup affected; instead, feelings toward immigrants and gays also become less positive under the specter of terrorism. In short, the threat of terrorism carries a social cost: reminders of the threat posed by terrorists breed suspicion, dislike, and open hostility toward societal outsiders.

Is there any way around this pattern wherein individuals become less supportive of democratic values and rights in times of threat? One potential solution that we are exploring is elite recall, which takes place when elites remind people of such values. This is essentially what Barack Obama attempted to do when he stated: "This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are." Mayor Bloomberg also offered a reminder when he said, "This proposed mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan is as important a test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime, and I applaud President Obama's clarion defense of the freedom of religion."

While such reminders may resonate among some, their impact is limited to the extent that there is not a unified voice reminding the public of these core values. Instead, many Republicans are capitalizing on the mosque issue for electoral gain while some Democratic incumbents are reluctant to stand behind the President. For instance, Rick Scott, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Florida, is running a TV ad that proclaims: ''Mr. President, Ground Zero is the wrong place for a mosque." Harry Reid, a prominent Democrat who is facing a tight Senate race in Nevada, has also spoken out against the location of the Cordoba Center.

Reminders of democratic values are likely to fall on deaf ears when elites appear divided. If the United States today follows the historical pattern of curtailing rights under conditions of insecurity, it is not much of a stretch to suppose that the first amendment guarantee of freedom of religion may come to be viewed as a privilege instead of a right: one that is offered only to those groups the majority of Americans consider non-threatening.

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